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Dougherty: Davante Adams might be the NFL's best receiver. Why doesn't he have a new contract?

GREEN BAY - It’s more than a little surprising that Davante Adams still doesn’t have a new contract.

But it’s even harder to believe he and the Green Bay Packers won’t work out a contract extension in the next week or two.

As former Packers vice president Andrew Brandt says, deadlines spur action.

And while there’s no hard deadline regarding Adams, the start of the regular season is when these deals often get done. It’s when the right amount of guaranteed money can convince a player to sign so he can shift his injury risk to the team. The start of the real season is a soft deadline because every game Adams gets through beginning with Sunday' openers is one fewer in which he can get hurt before becoming a free agent next March.

“The next two weeks are prime to pull it off,” said one NFL agent who works for a large firm.

Said a high-ranking NFL scout: “I don’t know if they’d be crazy not to (extend him). But I think they ought to try.”

The hang-up, as general manager Brian Gutekunst has put it, is that Adams and the Packers view the criteria for being the NFL's highest-paid receiver differently. After observing these negotiations over nearly 30 years, I’d argue these things are mostly semantics and negotiating posture. There usually are ways to satisfy a player’s desire to call himself the highest-paid without actually paying him that much money. Very few NFL contracts pay what they’re reported to pay.

Not that Adams won’t cost a lot of money. He will. Big money. Both the NFL Network and ESPN had him as the highest-rated receiver on their recent top-100 players lists. If he’s not the best receiver in the league, he’s near the top. So we’re talking a signing bonus of maybe $35 million and perhaps more, and a real average salary in the lower $20 million range, even if on paper it will say more.

The Packers should want Adams back even at that cost regardless of whether Aaron Rodgers is their quarterback in 2022. If Rodgers is back, he’ll have his receiver who changes defensive game plans and helps make the Packers a Super Bowl contender. If Rodgers is gone, Jordan Love will have one of the game’s best to throw to as he learns the NFL’s ropes.

You might wonder if the Packers can afford Adams, what with having Rodgers on the payroll and paying major contracts last year to Kenny Clark ($25 million bonus, $20.2 million average over the first three years) and David Bakhtiari ($30 million bonus, $21.4 million average the first three years), along with the prospect of doling out big money to cornerback Jaire Alexander next year.

You might question how many players a team can have who are among the highest-paid at their positions.

Well, two points there. One, after a couple years, they’ll no longer be so high on their position’s salary list. And two, look at one of the Packers’ chief rivals in the NFC, the Los Angeles Rams.

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The Rams have two quarterbacks (Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff) counting a combined $44.7 million on their cap this year, plus, based on average pay, the third-highest-paid defensive lineman (Aaron Donald, $22.5 million), the highest-paid defensive back (Jalen Ramsey, $20 million), and two receivers (Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp) who each average more than $15 million a year.

The Rams are among the favorites to win the NFC this season.

“The Rams paid several players a ton of money like the Packers have, and they do what the Packers do, fill in around them with a lot of rookies and cheap contracts,” the scout said. “It’s doable. It’s challenging, but doing it the other way is challenging too, having a roster of guys all making the same amount of money.”

The point is, guys this good win games. When you have one, you better have a great reason for letting him walk.

Adams turns 29 on Christmas Eve, so he’s not young. But at his position and with his talent and smarts, the Packers can reasonably project three more high-level seasons from him – this year and two more. He and they should be looking at this as a three-year contract even though it would be more than that on paper.

The hitch is DeAndre Hopkins’ contract with Arizona. Hopkins’ two-year extension, signed last year, has a “new-money” average of $27.25 million, which is well ahead of the No. 2 on the list, Julio Jones ($22 million). I’d balk at paying Adams $27.25 million a year, too.

But that isn’t what Hopkins makes. His real average over the life of the five-year deal (three years remaining on his previous deal, plus the two new years tacked on) is $19.5 million ($94.5 million over five years). The $27.25 million average is funny money.

What matters is Hopkins’ bonus ($27.5 million, a record for receivers), fully guaranteed money ($42.75 million) and pay over the first two ($42.8 million) and three years ($60.1 million). Jones, for that matter, topped Hopkins’ three-year total at $64 million.

There are too many ways to structure NFL contracts to explain here. But it’s safe to say, the Packers could top Hopkins’ deal and keep it relatively friendly for their bloated 2022 cap in any number of ways, some simple, some more complex.

Here, as an example, is a simple one: Add five years to Adams’ contract with a bonus of, say, $36 million plus a salary of $6 million this year, $6 million in ’22 and $17 million in ’23. With the way salary caps are calculated, Adams’ cap number would remain the same this year (about $16 million) and be $12 million in the cap-strapped ’22 season. Remember, they could always restructure Adams’ deal next offseason to lower that number, too.

More importantly, this deal would pay Adams $48 million over the first two years (more than Hopkins and the same as Jones) and $65 million over the first three years (more than both). The $36 million bonus would be by far the biggest ever at the position. Then the sides could tack on two phony years that raise the new-money average to more than $27.5 million, and Adams officially would be the highest-paid receiver in the league.

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One source told me the Packers made a substantial offer to Adams early in camp, but he turned that down, and his agent leaked to the media his client’s unhappy state with the offer. Without knowing the bonus and other details, it’s impossible to know whether it was truly a market offer. Probably not. Or not quite.

And maybe Adams would turn down an offer similar to the one outlined above. But I doubt it. Really, how could he walk away from that kind of guaranteed wealth and risk a serious injury this year? Just think how much money Bakhtiari would have lost out on when he blew out his ACL last December had he not signed his extension six weeks before.

No one is saying this is easy. We’re talking huge sums of the Packers’ money here. Their pockets are deep but finite. And next offseason will be at least as bad as this one for the Packers’ cap. A new Adams’ deal will only add to those issues. This would make for even more tough decisions before cap relief kicks in in 2023.

But great players win games, and there are only so many as good as Adams in this league. When you have one, you better do what you can to keep him. Or why else are you in the NFL?

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